During a recent spell of gallivanting around South East Asia, I spent some time in Laos: the landlocked sibling of its surrounding countries. Having spent a fair bit of time in Thailand, I (naively) thought that Laos would be somewhat similar. Surely the food would be as good? The days as swelteringly hot, and the nights as warm? And everything would be cheap as chips? Reader, I was wrong…
1. The food isn’t all that
You may have noticed that, compared to several other Asian cuisines, Laos food isn’t particularly well represented beyond its shores. There is a reason for this. After slurping my way through the best of Thailand’s curries, noodle dishes and stir fries, I was excited about trying a whole new country’s culinary delights. Faced with a platter of ‘local delicacies’ at the first restaurant we found, however, I was brought up short. This food just wasn’t…. nice. And don’t get me wrong – it was beautifully cooked, exquisitely presented and all the rest of it. But the flavours just really didn’t do it for me. Apparently the Lao flavour palette has characteristics of ‘herbal’ and ‘bitter’. Mmmmmm.
2. The people are even nicer
Everyone raves about how friendly people are in South East Asia – particularly in Thailand’s “Land of Smiles” – but the folks down in Laos take it to a whole new level. I met some of the sweetest, kindest and most generous people here, from the hotel staff where we stayed, to the monks, to the kids in the streets. Maybe the heavy influx of tourists in Thailand have made conversing with foreigners more of a chore, but in Laos we really felt like people wanted to stop and chat to us – whether to snatch a chance at improving their own English, or merely to find out what we had been up to, and what we thought of their country. Everyone we came across was unfailingly polite, cheery and helpful. What a place!
3. The spiders aren’t giving any f*cks
I hate to break it to you – especially if you’re an arachnaphobe like me – but the spiders in Laos don’t give a crap whether you see them or not. I was worried about spiders when we went to Australia, but everyone said “Oh don’t worry, they’ll be there but you won’t see them”. I was worried when we went to Thailand, but everyone said “Oh don’t worry, they’ll be there but you won’t see them”. When we went to Laos, I repeated the same adage to myself (“… but you won’t see them”) – only to find that the spiders in Laos are there and you flipping will see them. These freaks were hanging from the telephone wires in the street for God’s sake. We also had a chunky eight-legged visitor in our hotel room one morning, as bold as you like on the wall. The cheek of it.
4. The French colonial architecture is stunning
Similarly to neighbouring Vietnam, the French legacy left in Laos is still very visible – most obviously through the beautiful colonial buildings. Unlike Thailand, which is the only South East Asian country to have never been colonised, Laos therefore has a lovely mixture of Asian temples and more traditional structures interspersed with some decidedly more European abodes – and sometimes the two styles even blend into one. Wandering around Vientiane or Luang Prabang will reveal plenty of wonderful buildings speaking of old colonial elegance and style.
5. The mosquitoes mean business
I’ve been to plenty of countries where mosquitoes were a menace, but Laos has definitely topped my own personal chart of mozzie-related woes. In any hot country a few bites are always to be expected – and in Chiang Mai, our stop before Laos, I’d picked up a couple around my ankles. This was nothing compared to the red, blotchy, itchy onslaught experienced over the border, however. One particularly bad night left me with approximately 25 bites on each of my legs: the back of my thighs were basically one massive rash, and this was even when using a mosquito net and industrial amounts of mosquito repellent. (And to think, my main thigh-related worry to date had been people seeing my cellulite…). I used exactly the same mozzie spray, and exactly the same bite cream as in Thailand – but these guys took it up a notch and just would. not. quit.
6. The monks stop to chat
We’d brushed up on our monk conversation technique at Chiang Mai’s appropriately titled ‘Monk Chat’ inside Wat Chedi Luang, so it was a delightful surprise when the monks in Luang Prabang voluntarily stopped to make conversation with us. Many were keen to improve their English, and at one temple a monk actually got out his English homework and asked if we would explain a few things to him. Many of them can converse very well indeed, and will happily try to answer any questions you put to them. Learning about their day-to-day activities and way of life is particularly interesting and enlightening, and I genuinely missed the monks when we moved on from Laos.
7. It’s more expensive
Everything about Laos seemed to be more expensive – even the flight getting into the country was the most expensive of our multiple jaunts around SE Asia. Accommodation (certainly in tourist areas) will also be uncomfortably similar to prices in the west, believe it or not. For a prime spot on or near the Mekong in Luang Prabang, you will easily be looking at upwards of $100. I felt I did particularly well to find a good hotel for $69, which was a little hard to swallow given that we’d just come from a perfectly lovely $45 dollar a night hotel in Chiang Mai. Obviously there are always budget corners that can be cut – staying in a guest house or hostel and living primarily off baguettes and bottled water will stretch your Lao kip further, but for a comfortable standard of accommodation and nice meals out, be prepared to line your wallet.
8. The bakeries are awesome
That said, the baguettes here are not to be sniffed at – unless, of course, you are sniffing that ‘just baked’ smell. Yum. Another lasting legacy of French colonial rule is the quality bakeries and coffee shops scattered around the larger towns and cities. And with good croissants and patisserie delights also comes some excellent local coffee. A pillowy baguette stuffed with filling and strong coffee will do the trick when you’re fed up of all that
herby, bitter, yummy Lao food.
9. It’s generally much colder
I have to admit, even after extensive research I’m still not sure when the best time of year to visit Laos is. A friend went in Nov/Dec – technically in the dry season – but it was so cold she had to buy extra clothes. We went in May – technically the wet, hot season – and had day after day of rain, along with some pretty low temperatures. The most baffling part of all was that not even 400 miles away in Chiang Mai, we’d just experienced beautiful warm weather and clear skies, despite this also being in its ‘rainy’ season’. I still feel a twinge of jealousy when I see pictures of sunny Laos scenes. If someone can inform me when it is hot and dry, I’d love to know…
10. The locals love to learn
One of the qualities of the Lao folks that stayed with me the longest was their insatiable appetite for learning – whether that was improving their English, or increasing their knowledge of the world beyond their immediate borders. We came across so many people who were working incredibly hard to better themselves, and improve their chances of employment or study. One Friday night we were accosted by a group of youths who wanted to ‘ask us a favour’. In our local town back home you’d probably be pegging it down the street at this point, so it was with some caution that we asked what it was that they wanted. Their request (on a Friday night, remember) was to chat with us for half an hour or so, to improve their English. Truly inspiring.